Federal Faces: John Butler

February 19, 2013

Name: John Butler

Position: National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) fellow and group leader, Applied Genetics Group, Biomolecular Measurement Division

Best known for: Improving DNA technology to help solve crimes. TV shows such as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and “NCIS” may make DNA forensic testing appear relatively easy, but scientists such as Butler are truly advancing the technology for crime-solving. A leading expert on forensic DNA technology, Butler developed a system to improve how scientists perform forensic analysis on degraded DNA samples — a process used on remains from the World Trade Center attacks, on fallen soldiers and in decades-old criminal cases.

He’s now testing the reliability of new technology to speed up DNA analysis from eight hours to one and refining the testing to make it more precise. He is also involved in research to isolate the male Y chromosome from DNA samples, making it easier to identify those who have committed sexual assaults. In addition to crime-solving, DNA technology is used to resolve paternity issues, identify disaster victims and assist in missing-person cases. Butler has written four books on DNA testing, including one textbook, “Forensic DNA Typing,” which many forensic DNA analysts consider to be the field’s bible.

Government work: After working at the FBI laboratory in Quantico, during graduate school, Butler conducted his postdoctoral work at NIST, spent two years at a private company and returned to NIST in 1999 to lead the agency’s efforts in human identity testing.


John Butler. (NIST)

Motivation for service: Butler sees his work as an important public service because it helps forensic laboratories do their jobs more effectively and assists the criminal justice process. “NIST is a place where I can have an impact and help society,” he said.

Biggest challenge: Finding enough time to conduct research and write while responding to requests that range from helping the FBI with data analysis to assisting domestic and foreign forensic laboratories improve their processes.

Quote: “We are helping solve crimes. The results from these tests can impact life and liberty.”

— From the Partnership for Public Service

For a full profile, go to The Fed Page at washingtonpost.com/politics/federal-government.

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